Jews are blessed with unique traditions, but at this time of year we relish the sticky sentiment we share with honey. And what a paradox is this sweetest of delights! For one thing, honey comes from a non-kosher insect. For another, dissolved honey, like yeast, causes fermentation which also symbolizes the willful way we can boil over with pride, conceit and arrogance. Honey is tricky to harvest and everyone knows that a teensy bee can bring fear to our heart because of its fearsome ability to sting with a fiery pain.
And still! Every Rosh Hashanah we fall in love with honey once again and enthusiastically ask for a Shanah Tovah U’mituka, a good and sweet year. Quite soon after sharing the blessing, we sink a slice of newly harvested apple into good raw honey and the deal is sealed. Traditionally, it is proper to serve honey with every major meal from Rosh Hashanah until after Sukkot. Lekach or Honey cake is often the answer to this tradition as little is more delicious than a honey-sweetened cake. Of course the balabusta will use a fair amount of eggs, oil, salt, and baking powder but ancient recipes abound for a traditional honey cake to be baked with an equal weight of white rye flour and dark honey, strong coffee, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and maybe some golden raisins, slivered almonds decorating the top.
The practice of honey collection and beekeeping dates to Torah times and is also evidenced by cave paintings. Rabbinical interpretation of the Torah’s honey is that it comes from the fig or date. However, in Judges (14:9) the mighty Samson discovers the carcass of a lion with a swarm of bees and honey inside. Clearly, in this instance, the honey is understood to be comb honey.
The Mishnah states, “that which comes from something which is not kosher is not kosher, and that which comes from something which is kosher is kosher.” But honey is produced by the non-kosher bee and is still a kosher food because it is not produced by the digestion of a bee; it is created by the enzymes in the bee and the honey is “cooked” in the comb, not inside the insect. Thank goodness.
More than 80% (81.2% to be exact) of honey is sugars and starches and the consumption of a teaspoon of the golden liquid will immediately convert itself into energy. Glorious honey is second to none in food value. One pound of the stuff contains a whopping 1,475 calories and 17 grams of sugar.
Incredibly, there are over 25,000 species of bee worldwide but still, there is only one variety that produces honey that is the apis, otherwise known as the honeybee.
Honey is first mentioned in the Torah as one of the gifts sent by Jacob with his sons when they went down to Egypt to seek food during the famine. Thereafter, it is written that manna, the daily food which the Israelites survived on for their forty years’ wandering to the Promised Land, tasted like, “wafers made with honey” (Exodus. 16:31). Little wonder that biblical references to Israel repeatedly brand the Promised Land as the land of “milk and honey.”
We have an essential need for bees to pollinate our fruit and vegetables. One-third of the food we eat depends on insect pollination, mostly by honey bees. It has been said that the world would be better off if everyone kept them! Paradoxically, the American food chain is interconnected with bees even though they are not native to America. Earliest data shows that honey bee colonies were shipped to the Virginia Colony from England in 1622. Since then, they have survived just fine when farmed in an apiary. (Remember that word; it works well in Scrabble.)
In case you wondered, a bee costs approximately 50 cents and a Queen bee costs around $20 because she is entirely in charge of producing eggs for the three years of her little life. A colony consists of a single queen and several thousand sterile worker bees. Each hive will collect 66 lbs. of pollen each year, which is a pretty big achievement. Honey bees represent a highly organized society, with various bees having very specific roles during their lifetime: e.g., nurses, guards, grocers, housekeepers, construction workers, royal attendants, undertakers, foragers, etc. Most estimates show the time it takes a beekeeper to tend to one single colony of bees is between 15–30 hours a year, less than 10 minutes a day!
There are many types, colors and flavors of honey, depending upon its nectar source. The bees make honey from the nectar they collect from flowering trees and plants. To make a statement of originality, look for more unusual flavors this year. Perhaps Carob Honey from Morocco or Tawari honey from New Zealand. Alternatively, enjoy a locally produced variety which will build your immune system to local flowers. Honey is an easily digestible, pure food. It is hygroscopic, meaning it holds water, and it has antibacterial qualities, even fending off allergies.
The tragedy of our times is that bees have been dying in remarkable numbers since 2005. There is now an understanding that this is because of mites, viruses and insecticides. The epidemic, known as “colony collapse disorder,” has caused U.S. bee keepers to lose approximately one-third of their colonies in 2014 alone. Researchers believe a main culprit is a relatively new class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, which makes it difficult for the insects to use their sense of scent to find food.
The numbers are truly shocking. More than 10 million beehives have been lost at a cost of $200 a hive, since 2006, according to a report on honey bee health from the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. The cost to replace all of those dead hives is approximately $2 billion and this will have to be paid by the beekeepers. A single hive costs at least $200 and there is concern that beekeepers will choose another business as a result of the problems. “Imagine you were a dairy farmer and lost 30% of your cows every year — how long would you stay in business?” asks Carlen Jupe, secretary and treasurer of the California State Beekeepers Association. “You can’t lose that percentage of livestock and stay in business.”
The American Beekeeping Federation acts on behalf of the beekeeping industry on issues affecting the interests and the economic viability of the various sectors of the industry. If you would like to learn more about beekeeping, don’t miss the online sessions that they hold. On August 26, 2015 Tim Tucker, ABF President, will be holding the first of three sessions and will share exquisite information about honey bees and honey. ““Bee educated about honey bees and how you — yes, you — can help reverse their population decline. Join the American Beekeeping Federation for a free, public three-part webinar series about the basics of beekeeping and honey bees. Tim Tucker shares an overview of honey bee biology and an explanation of how and why we keep them the way we do today.”
Help is also at hand from our President. In May 2014, President Obama issued a new Strategy announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Pollinator Health Task Force. It proposes additional restrictions on the use of acutely toxic pesticides during times when bees are most likely to be present. “…Applications of acutely toxic pesticides would be prohibited when flowers are in bloom and when bees are brought to farms for pollination services. The proposed restrictions focus on managed bees but the EPA believes these measures will also protect native bees.”
Meanwhile, on September 2nd, Los Angeles City Council voted to have the City Attorney create an ordinance that would allow for backyard beekeeping in our neighborhoods. Beekeepers would have to take extra effort to keep the bees in the hive area but now there is a real possibility that old and new beekeepers will successfully rejuvenate the industry.
A verse in Birkat Hamazon, praises Israel’s “Seven Species” of fruit and grain. This includes, last but not least, honey, whose sweetness and essential value is easily overlooked, but still unique and powerful; just like us.